I had a good day in the archives on Friday. For the first time in a week I had a few minutes to just do whatever I wanted, so I sat down (on the floor, back in the rolling stacks–always dangerous and thrilling!) and looked at some pictures from the campus photographer’s files. There were some old ones in there, and I was extremely happy when I found this one. It’s William V. Houston, Rice’s second president. For some reason we don’t have very many photos of him, and this one may be the best one that exists. He was a pretty formal fellow, and this is the only picture I’ve ever seen of him where he’s clearly smiling. (I realize it’s not a huge grin or anything, but he is definitely smiling. Really. I’ve seen pictures of him where he’s not smiling, and this one is different.)
So as I sat there, I began to think about when and where the picture was taken. It’s not obvious at first, but I’m certain that he was standing on the back patio of the newly completed President’s House, which was finished in 1949. The biggest clue is the beautiful decorative ironwork that he has his hand on. I knew that the President’s House had been designed by the prominent Houston architect John Staub and that this was certainly the kind of careful and graceful design that characterized his work. But, amazingly, I also had a way to check this. The Woodson Research Center recently acquired the Weber-Staub-Briscoe Collection, an amazing collection that includes drawings, pattern boards, plaster patterns, and dies that were used by the Weber Ironworks to produce the ornamental metal designed by Staub and other architects for many of the city’s finest homes. There are a lot of these pattern boards and we haven’t had them for very long, so we’re still organizing them. But I thought it was worth a shot to go downstairs to the work room in the basement of Fondren Library and see if I could find this pattern. With the help of Lee Pecht, the head of Special Collections at Fondren, I did. Here’s the pattern board that was used for the President’s House ironwork:
Now, of course, I had to go over and see if it was still there. And sadly, for the most part, it’s not. The house underwent major renovation in the 1970s, and I think the back patios were enclosed then, which meant that the original metalwork was removed. The really sad thing, though, is that the ironwork on the front porch was also taken out and replaced with wood pillars. I’m certainly no expert, but I think the most elegant thing about the original house was this exceptional ornamental metal. You can see it pretty clearly in this 1949 photo if you click on it to enlarge it:
But here’s the good news: there’s still one piece left, on the small balcony attached to the second floor window. Luckily, I have a friend who works just inside that window, so I could just barge in with no explanation and start taking pictures. So pretty!
Like I said, it was a really good day.